Optimising Optus

Optimising Optus

It's nine years since Optus rode into town and asked Australia to just say "yes". Much has changed in the industry - and at the company - since then. Keith Power profiles Optus now and its IT supremo.

As director, programs for Cable & Wireless Optus, Julia Bowen has a dual role. She is the company's senior IT decision maker, or CIO, and she is also responsible for project managing new developments in the organisation that include new products, systems and infrastructure. The rationale of the dual role, Bowen says, is that many of the development programs are themselves very IT-centric, especially as Optus strives to provide ever more services and solutions for its customers. Consequently, there are a host of synergies between her two areas of responsibility.

"We need to ensure that we continue to drive a [strong culture of delivery] through the IT areas of the company," says Bowen. "It can be a trap in a large organisation to spend a lot of time looking at all of the possible solutions rather than driving towards any particular one. By bringing my two areas together, we end up with what I hope is the best of both worlds. We have a specialised group of project managers who may manage projects that sit across products, systems or infrastructure. Typically, they will be aligned to the sort of area they have experience in, although not necessarily because project management is quite a generic skill."

Bowen reports to Optus' managing director, net-works. As in many large organisations, matrix management and relationships are the order of the day at Optus and the IT structure and operation is no exception.

According to Bowen, each of the business areas owns its IT strategy and implementation, with its own general manager running IT for that particular line of business. At the same time, she says, she and her team are responsible for a strong architectural and technical governance across all of the lines to ensure consistency and control support costs.

"The end-to-end project management is owned within the lines of business, which are accountable for delivery of the solutions. IT is there to ensure that the solution works and conforms to corporate governance. This does create natural tension because the project manager in the business line wants to deliver something [fast], whereas the IT people will want to deliver the 100 per cent solution that has architectural or technical elegance. I don't want to discourage them from doing that because I think that's important to strive for," she says.

According to Bowen, IT has always been a fundamental part of the company's success, ever since its formation as Optus Communications some nine years ago. From the beginning, she says, the company pushed new products out onto the market fast, which was only possible with effective IT systems.

Like most telecommunications companies, Optus has a number of billing, provisioning and network management systems. Being a full-service telco these days, Bowen says, the company provides a wide variety of services that is getting wider as it moves into hosting and applications service provision (ASP). Consequently, one of the key challenges she has is to ensure the infrastructure is in place to support new products and to be able to provide the same level of service in new areas as it has in its traditional telephony marketplace.

While Optus has had to undertake a degree of bespoken development, the company has typically taken a packaged approach to systems implementation. Key to its ongoing systems development program, though, has been a strong middleware program. "As we build new components into the network, we're using middleware to do all the integration. This gives us a far more flexible environment and set of infrastructure components that will allow us to plug in new functions [as we roll them out]," Bowen says.

Customer Facing Systems.

Unlike other large telcos that have been around longer, Bowen claims that Optus has always had a strong focus on automated customer relation-ship management (CRM). As a result, she says that most of the company's key IT initiatives now focus around rationalising infrastructure and migrating from 1980s- and early 1990s-based packages into more flexible, newer tech-nologies. While IT may have been fundamental to the company from the outset, to date it has been a back-office support function. Now, Bowen says, Optus is also using IT to deliver products and services directly to its customers.

"We are Web-enabling everything, which is exciting," she says. "I have people who are delivering a Web-based front end into our billing system. More than that, I have people who are delivering e-commerce solutions and various mobile data applications that sit right in the customer's face. In addition, the IT groups are very much at the forefront of new product launches, and my group is also starting to deal directly with customer solutions. Although packaged services still account for most of Optus' revenue, we now also provide customised solutions and outsourcing services, which is another step in our evolution."

Since its inception, the company has out-sourced large parts of its IT. In addition to a number of smaller deals, it currently has two contracts with Compaq, to whom it outsources its data centre operations; and with IBM Global Services Australia (IBM GSA), to whom it out-sources some of its development and maintenance activities (see "Love 'Em or Hate 'Em, Use 'Em Strategically", CIO April 2001).

Bowen says she maintains a balance between strategy and pragmatism in deciding what activities to outsource and what to keep in-house. For example, Optus entered into the IBM GSA deal in 1999 specifically to over-come a development bottleneck and significantly increase its development capacity, which it was only able to achieve through such a deal. Other areas of development are not outsourced, however, and Bowen specifically does not outsource the systems integration intrinsic to product development so as to preserve the company's intellectual property.

Bowen believes the critical success factor in managing relationships with suppliers is to have a commonly understood objective. "If you're not both striving to achieve the same thing in any relationship, you shouldn't be too surprised when you arrive at different destinations," she says. "It's a matter of setting out on day one with a clear understanding of what you're trying to achieve and then to just keep checking it.

"The problem is, of course, that what you're trying to achieve in a relationship at the outset is often not what you're trying to achieve in the relationship two years down the track. In the case of the IBM GSA outsourcing contract, initially we needed extra capacity. Now that we've got over that capacity bottleneck, the focus is on efficiency. So the whole process of checking, rechecking and validating the objectives of a relationship is absolutely fundamental, and you need a contract that allows you to move as the organisation's objectives move.

"You can't tell me that telcos today, and certainly Optus today, need the same things we needed a year ago. We need to provide quite different things to our customers and shareholders. Consequently, the major relationships I have, which involve large amounts of dollars, need to reflect that."

Taking Care of Business.

Bowen has been director, programs since September 2000 but has worked for Optus for more than three years. The first two she spent on Optus' Y2K program, much of which involved end-to-end testing of key business processes. Bowen found this an interesting exercise because it required the company to define a lot of the processes and determine which systems were being used by which business process. "If we wanted to activate a customer on a particular service, for instance, we had to determine what all the systems and processes were that went into doing that, and sometimes it was quite complex," Bowen explains.

"We'd completed all the hardware and software testing. We knew all the individual systems worked and we knew a lot of the interfaces worked; but until then we hadn't strung together our key business processes so that we could be sure that, at New Year 2000, if people wanted to turn their mobile phones on, they would work."

Bowen then spent some time on contingency planning before setting up and running a Y2K command centre for the night of December 31, 1999/January 1, 2000. She then project-managed the launch of a business-to-business e-commerce solution before taking up her current position.

Bowen describes her background before Optus as being in implementation and project management rather than in the technical arena. Like most CIOs, she has always focused much more on the use of IT systems rather than on how they are built. However, because the two are inextricably linked, she says she has learned a lot about various technologies and how applications get constructed along the way.

"I don't think I have a disadvantage in not being highly technical," she reflects. "Technology now is so diverse that being a specialist in any one area of it is irrelevant when it comes to managing the broad range of it. Any senior management position requires you to have a broad knowledge of things rather than a necessarily deep one. In fact, if you're highly specialised in one area, it's tempting to start delving into it and doing your staff members' jobs; whereas, if you're not an expert in that area, you won't try and tell them how to do it."

Indeed, Bowen's goal as a manager is never to manage anybody. Her philosophy is that since she personally produces little in the way of tangibles, her role is to ensure the people in her team - whose role it is to produce products and systems - have the environment in which they can get things done and are adequately resourced and trained.

Neither does Bowen get stressed too much about the IT skills shortage, which she says she's been hearing about for the last 20 years. To her, attracting and retaining good staff simply comes down to the basics of having interesting and challenging work for them to do and a salary structure that's attractive for them to join and stay with the company. In addition, she says that share ownership in the company is high among all employees.

"It's easy to be tempted to just recruit people into a job and not take a longer term view, especially in a project-related organisation such as ours. Our engineering side of the business has had a graduate recruitment program for a long time; now we're looking at broadening that right across the IT side, as well as [training] some of our own people and moving them through the organisation.

"We want to build the right culture and the right environment for our people. I believe that if you can show people and the job market that you have an exciting and vibrant place to work - where you'll get to try out some really leading-edge technologies and you'll be paid appropriately - then they are going to want to work for us. People want to work for telcos," she says.

Team Player.

Bowen admits that building the right team, with the optimum blend of skills, experience and personality traits, is an issue. However, the challenges are not particularly special to IT. She thinks the IT profession will never achieve its goals of being integrated into, and being accepted as part of, the business if it continues to insist that managing IT people is different from managing other people.

She does put a lot of store in team-building exercises, though, chiefly as a way of improving communication by being able to step back from the everyday rush. She finds the most effective exercises are those that form part of a project and are used as a focus point at the beginning of the project to bring the team together. While "tree hugging" can be fun in itself, she believes it can also be relevant to the business as long as the team later sits down and analyses what it learned from the exercise (see "Go Team?", left).

Optus has its own registered training organisation, Optus College, that runs courses leading to nationally recognised diplomas and certificates. Bowen insists that all of her program and project managers are either accredited or working towards accreditation in project management. Making time for training is simply a matter of commitment and planning, she says. To keep up to date herself, Bowen reads as much as possible and most of all likes to network with peers by attending conferences and seminars.

"I feel it's important to focus on how to implement systems and technology and get things done. You can read articles and methodologies, but typically you find out by hearing how other people succeeded or failed. I also get a lot of value from meeting people and finding out what's happening outside my own organisation," she says.

Bowen believes that IT is integrated with the business at Optus but isn't necessarily perceived as such. Her aspiration, therefore, is to transform her IT and development areas into a valued part of the organisation.

"That's a big task because it involves quite a cultural change in an organisation our size. I want to make some significant leaps forward and every three to six months be able to acknowledge that we have made [good progress] and move on to another one," Bowen concludes.

Mystic Pizza.

Phoning Domino's isn't the only way to keep IT staff.

The human resources issues Julia Bowen talks about are, of course, common to all CIOs - but views vary. When Novell's senior vice-president, Sheri Anderson, was the company's CIO with a large internal IS department, she used to jest that free pizza was a good way to keep her troops motivated.

However, her counterpart at Microsoft, global CIO Rick Devenuti, believes pizza only goes so far. Although a subscriber to "high-tech pizza and beer parties", Devenuti thinks the most important thing he can do to motivate IT people within Microsoft is to show the value they create in being the company's first and best customer in receiving all new Microsoft software early in its development cycle.

"IT people can work anywhere in the world today. The worldwide shortage is more than 1.5 million. I focus on making sure they understand that we're giving them an opportunity to do something they can't do anywhere else in the world, which is to run a $US23 billion company on beta software. There are unique challenges those people have to face," Devenuti says.

Like Bowen, Devenuti also encounters natural tension, in his case between his own internal team and the rest of a company full of IT professionals "Any time you get professionals together you get disagreement in the technology space about the best way to do things. ‘Should we use existing code or do I need to write my own?', for example. I think that's natural as there's a fair amount of personal religion and self-worth in all development activities," Devenuti says.

Michael Young is vice president for IT, Asia Pacific, Arnott's Biscuits and Campbell's Soup. He favours both "tree hugging" as a form of entertainment and social activities as a way of building team spirit and getting away from the seriousness of business. "It creates an unexpected environment for them; it does allow them to get to know each other socially and to get to know each others' strengths and weaknesses," he says.

"We've also run Myer-Briggs [tests] for all of the team and shared the results with everyone so that they understand why someone in the team might behave a certain way and [be able to] accommodate that.

"For instance, I'm not the best detailed or formal planner in the world. Knowing that is part of my style, my staff understand and don't expect a project plan [detailed] to the nth degree as they might from someone else. We mix up the formal aspects of team building or training with the informal so that the atmosphere is fairly open and relaxed - and it tends to work."

According to Young, all the staff at Arnott's and Campbell's have a 12- to 18- month personal development plan based on what they think they need and an agreement with their manager as to what the company is willing to do. There are also succession and retention plans. To get the right people on board, Young believes in building good relationships with individuals in recruitment firms over a number of years. That way, he says, they understand your style and what type of team you put together, and are more likely to send someone your way who they actually believe fits your organisation.

"It doesn't always work, of course," he admits, "but I think you have a better chance of success."

Go Team?

Two cheers for team-based management

At least since Roman legions conquered Gaul, military leaders have known soldiers don't give a rat's tail about country or causes; however, they also know that in the face of death, a soldier will risk his life for his comrades. Perhaps no element of training is more important than creating esprit de corps.

What was clear to Julius Caesar has become accepted wisdom in the executive suite. Most employees would rather hurry home to dine with their kids than add extra dollars to the bottom line for dear old International Widget. But who among us is unwilling to stay late a few nights so as not to let down Sally and John, our buddies who work down the hall?

In the early 1980s, when the Japanese were dining on the lunch of Western economies, rugged individualism suddenly seemed counterproductive. If, in other countries, workers weren't quite ready to sing the company song each morning, at least they knew about teamwork. But before committing your organisation to team-based management, be sure your understanding of how to transform a group into a team goes beyond what you learned on the soccer field. A coffee klatch does not a task-based team make.

One might argue that the most efficient organisational unit is one person with talent, vision and energy. But because Ben Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci are unavailable, consider how "groupthink" can stifle individual initiative. And despite all the talk about giving groups incentives, another reservation about team-based management is how to dole out individual rewards. Although such tools as 360-degree feedback may help measure an individual's contribution to a group, be careful. Without appropriate analysis and application of the results, what used to be called gossip and perception can become confused with rock-hard truth.

All this suggests that training is required not only for team participants but for the executives who must learn to evaluate and manage teams. CEOs may find themselves in the woods building rope bridges, scaling cliffs and falling into their colleagues' arms, though such exercises won't necessarily help them know when to be team players and when to lead the charge.

There's plenty to say in favour of teams, of course. No question, job satisfaction often supersedes salary and benefits. Chances are that the sense of fulfilment we feel as part of a closely knit group dates to prehistoric times when hunters and gatherers roamed the veldt and found safety in numbers. It's a good feeling, but never forget that the herd instinct can also lead cattle to stampede.

- Perry Glasser

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